Properties & Aesthetics of Digital Environments

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In her book, “Hamlet on the Holodeck,” Janet Murray discusses the properties and aesthetics of digital environments. In doing so, she describes a set of parameters that can be used as a framework for analyzing multi-linear narrative works. Murray’s four properties of digital environments are that they are: 1) Procedural; 2) Participatory; 3) Spatial; and 4) Encyclopedic. Murray’s three aesthetic pleasures of digital environments are: 1) Immersion; 2) Agency; and 3) Transformation. (Murray, 2000).

Properties of Digital Environments:

Digital Environments are Procedural:

In order to have coherency, digital environments have sets of rules that govern a user’s experience. These rules are not meant to impose limitations, but rather to provide structure to what could otherwise be a chaotic digital landscape. The nature of digital environments is to allow for exploration of new possibilities and creativity.

“[T]he computer can be a compelling medium for storytelling if we can write rules for it that are recognizable as an interpretation of the world.” (Murray, 2000, pg. 73)

Digital Environments are Participatory:

Even though we are forced to work within a specific set of rules due to the procedural nature of digital environments, they are still quite appealing to us because of the power they imbue to create new experiences. Participation in a digital environment means that the computer is in some way responding to the user – the program is not just displaying what the user inputs, but interacting. Murray uses the computer game Zork as an early example of a participatory story:

“Within Zork’s fantasy world, players move through dungeon rooms by typing in navigational commands…, look for objects that can be manipulated…, solve riddles, and fight off evil trolls.” (Murray, 2000, pg. 74)

Digital Environments are Spatial:

“The computer’s spatial quality is created by the interactive process of navigation.” (Murray, 2000, pg. 80)

Unlike books or print, digital realms have the ability to represent a space that can be navigated by the ‘reader.’ A multi-linear work with open architecture means that the virtual space is free to be explored by the end-user – there are no specific boundaries guiding the user in a particular direction. Closed architecture is more or less the opposite of open architecture, in that the end-user is forced to navigate a specific path. If the user deviates, obstacles and cul-de-sacs are used to bring the user back to the main path.

Instead of the word spatial, Lev Manovich uses the term navigable space to refer to 3-D computer-based virtual space in The Language of New Media (Manovich, 2001).

Digital Environments are Encyclopedic:

Digital environments are able to store vast amounts of information. This property is similar to stating that digital environments use a database form. In computer science, a database is defined as a structured collection of data, or an organized body of related information, and in digital media, the database has emerged as an effective medium to provide a user efficient access to information (Manovich, 2001, p.215).

“… creating a work in new media can be understood as the construction of an interface to a database.” (Manovich, 2001, p.226)

There are many different types of databases – hierarchical, network, relational, object-oriented, etc – and they each use different models and algorithms for organizing the data. The OOIC model uses an object-oriented database, which stores complex data structures (objects) in hierarchical classes. An object of one class can inherit properties from classes higher than it in the hierarchy.


Aesthetics of Digital Environments:

Digital Environments are Immersive:

“The experience of being transported to an elaborately simulated place is pleasurable in itself, regardless of the fantasy content. We refer to this experience as immersion.” (Murray, 2000, pg. 98)

One thing that interactive narrative attempts to accomplish is the active creation of belief, rather than just the passive suspension of disbelief.

Digital Environments can build Agency:

“Agency is the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices.” (Murray, 2000, pg. 126)

Digital Environments can be Transformative:

Transformation can happen two ways: the interactor can transform the digital environment, or the digital environment can transform or influence the interactor.



Manovich, Lev. “The Language of New Media.” Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 2001.

Murray, Janet. “Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.” Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 2000.

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Adrian, or AJ, is the founder and Director of Technology of Pop Digital. He has spoken at tech conferences around the world, and published numerous articles about Agile methodologies, UX design, Information Architecture, and Web Development.

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